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American Literature: Lesbian, 1900-1969  
page: 1  2  3  


Relationships with audience are also vital considerations begging for more thorough scrutiny. Analyzing Barnes's work, Benstock argues that Nightwood (1936), with which general audiences tend to be more familiar, and Ladies Almanack (1928) are addressed to two markedly different audiences and that it is crucial for readers to be aware of that in order to understand the very different kinds of cultural work the two are doing.

While "Nightwood carefully conceals the psychosexual premises on which it establishes its social-cultural critique, Ladies Almanack reveals Barnes's enormous ambivalence about the sexual and social privilege it satirizes," that of a "small and select audience of lesbians well known to Barnes (members of Natalie Clifford Barney's salon). . . . Nightwood invokes the underside of high modernism while Ladies Almanack is addressed to the women who are themselves the subjects of its satire."

Misunderstanding audience and intention has contributed to the dismissal of lesbian literature as a narrow "special interest" and to the refusal to recognize lesbian eroticism as an important wellspring for artistic movements.

This question of audience, or of insufficient consideration of audience, has also resulted in dismissals of poetry like that by Angelina Weld Grimké as "too conventional." African-American and probably lesbian, Grimké was confronted with at least three formidable cultural biases (those toward women, blacks, and homosexuals), and thus her apparently timid adherence to form and meter might be seen as a strategy for acceptable expression of unacceptable desires.

In Color, Sex, & Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Gloria Hull examines how "Grimké handled in her public art what seem to be woman-to-woman romantic situations" by eschewing "third-person pronouns and the usual tendency most readers have ... to image the other in a love poem as being opposite in sex from the poem's known author." Hull also recovers Alice Dunbar Nelson's lesbian attractions and the fact that the few of her poems on this subject that have survived and been made available reveal "the existence and operation of an active black lesbian network" in the 1920s.

Also significant in this period are the vibrant songs performed by blues artists Bessie Jackson and Bessie Smith, which, as Elly Bulkin observes, provide "a rich source of lesbian expression." Jackson performed "B.D. Blues (Bull Dagger Blues)" during her career (1923-1935), while Bessie Smith sang several songs with explicitly lesbian lyrics. Perhaps ironically, lower class status may well have enabled these women to be more daring in lesbian expression than the economically privileged Grimké.

Chris Albertson's biography of the blues singer, Bessie (Smith), quotes the unequivocal "The Boy in the Boat" (1930): "When you see two women walking hand in hand, / just look 'em over and try to understand: / They'll go to those parties--have the lights down low--/ Only those parties where women can go. / You think I'm lying--just ask Tack Ann- / Took many a broad from many a man."

In fact, women outside culturally advantaged circles (academe, elite literary cliques) have been largely responsible for lesbian literary movements in the twentieth century, and influential publications have emerged from middle-class America. The Ladder, the newsletter of America's first lesbian emancipation group, the Daughters of Bilitis, and Vice Versa both sought assimilation for lesbians into the mainstream.

Not surprisingly, then, authors often used pseudonyms like Lisa Ben (anagram of L-E-S-B-I-A-N) or Laurajean Ermayne. It is crucial for lesbian readers, writers, historians, and critics to be aware of this for, as in the case of Ermayne, "she" has been married to the same woman for forty-one years, has spent a lifetime writing about assorted monsters, goblins, ghouls, politicians, wizards, witches, warlocks, and is actually Forrest J. Ackerman, editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, who wrote as a lesbian because he does not believe in "discrimination against gays-blacks-browns-yellows-red-polka dots-Jews."

For us to know that an admittedly eccentric but nevertheless sexually "straight" man was writing for a lesbian magazine in the late 1940s, not for self-titillation but for lesbian and gay liberation, is of vital importance. Our allies and supporters have been more numerous than the keepers of society's conventional and repressive editorial practices would have us believe.


The trajectory of lesbian literature for the first two-thirds of the twentieth century can be described as a movement from encrypted strategies for expressions of the love that dare not speak its name to overtly political celebrations of woman-for-woman passion that, by the late 1960s, refuses to be denied, denigrated, or expunged.

Martha Nell Smith

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literature >> Overview:  African-American Literature: Lesbian

Most African-American lesbian literature is as concerned with racism as it is with sexuality, causing many writers to construct Afrocentric sexual identities that affirm the power of black women.

arts >> Overview:  Blues Music

Blues music as it flourished in the 1920s was women's music, and it often featured sexually-inflected lyrics performed by women who were openly bisexual or lesbian.

literature >> Overview:  Butch-Femme Relations

It is impossible to understand twentieth-century lesbian literature without recognizing the significance of butch-femme relationships.

social sciences >> Overview:  Butch-Femme

Butch-femme identities are controversial and difficult to define with precision, but both roles subvert prescribed gender and sexual expectations; ultimately, the butch-femme dynamic is a unique way of living and loving.

literature >> Overview:  The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance, an African-American literary movement of the 1920s and 1930s, included several important gay and lesbian writers.

literature >> Overview:  Journalism and Publishing

The gay and lesbian press is of prime importance in sustaining a frequently embattled minority and has been crucial in the development of a national mass movement for gay rights.

literature >> Overview:  Novel: Lesbian

From the great modernist writers of the 1920s and 1930s to the pulp writers of the 1950s to the lesbian writers of today, lesbian novelists have had a powerful impact on the lesbian community.

literature >> Overview:  Poetry: Lesbian

Since the 1960s, the general trend in lesbian poetry has been collective and political rather than purely aesthetic.

arts >> Overview:  Pulp Paperbacks and Their Covers

Despite the stereotyping of their cover art and their pathologizing of lesbianism, the American pulp novels of the 1950s and 1960s subverted the social and political prohibitions against homosexual expression during the McCarthy era.

social sciences >> Overview:  Women's Liberation Movement

The Women's Liberation Movement, which flourished during the 1970s, constitutes the largest and most widely publicized social movement of women in history.

literature >> Bannon, Ann

In a series of five interlinked pulp novels set in Greenwich Village and its homosexual bars in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Bannon provides an important record of lesbian life in a period when few women dared speak openly about homosexuality.

literature >> Barnes, Djuna

American novelist Djuna Barnes sought new forms of self-representation of lesbians in the face of society's compulsory heterosexuality.

literature >> Barney, Natalie Clifford

In addition to being the muse and inspiration of other writers, American expatriate Natalie Barney, known as the Amazon, was a poet, memoirist, and epigrammatist in her own right.

literature >> Bates, Katharine Lee

American poet, literary scholar, and educator, Katharine Lee Bates is best known for her poem "America the Beautiful" and for her relationship with Wellesley College colleague Katharine Coman.

literature >> Bishop, Elizabeth

Widely acknowledged as one of the finest twentieth-century American poets, Elizabeth Bishop encoded a lesbian identity in her poems.

social sciences >> Boston Marriages

Boston marriages--romantic unions between women that were usually monogamous but not necessarily sexual--flourished in the late nineteenth-century between women who tended to be college-educated, feminist, financially independent, and career-minded.

literature >> Bradley, Marion Zimmer

A matriarch of fantasy and science fiction literature, Marion Zimmer Bradley also authored lesbian paperback pulps and articles for The Ladder and Mattachine Review.

literature >> Cather, Willa

One of America's premier literary artists in the earlier twentieth century, Willa Cather reflected her own lesbianism in the creation of strong women characters and in the exploration of male homosexuality.

social sciences >> Daughters of Bilitis

The first national lesbian political and social organization in the United States, the Daughters of Bilitis was a significant part of the pre-Stonewall lesbian and gay rights movement.

literature >> Doolittle, Hilda

The bisexual poet and novelist Hilda Doolittle, who published under the initials H. D., wrote poems and autobiographical prose works that celebrate women's romantic relationships with each other.

literature >> Flanner, Janet

An expatriate journalist, novelist, and translator, Janet Flanner spent most of her adult life in Paris with her lover Solita Solano.

literature >> Frederics, Diana

The pseudonymous Diana: A Strange Autobiography, first published in 1939, is a coming out story that explores the relationship between lesbians and the larger culture and between lesbians and the medical profession.

literature >> Grahn, Judy

Judy Grahn has been an effective leader the gay rights movement, and her identity as a lesbian and a feminist has infused all of her works, in both prose and poetry.

literature >> Grier, Barbara

As bibliographer, reviewer, collector, editor, and co-founder of Naiad Press, Barbara Grier was an important nurturer of lesbian literature.

literature >> Grimké, Angelina Weld

A noted African-American writer from the 1900s through the 1920s, Angelina Weld Grimké fell into obscurity in the 1930s and was only rediscovered in the 1980s; her inability to act on her sexual desires inspired her writing and contributed to her ultimately abandoning it.

literature >> Hall, Radclyffe

Radclyffe Hall, who lived her lesbianism openly and proudly, is best known for The Well of Loneliness, arguably the most important lesbian novel ever written.

literature >> Hansberry, Lorraine

As a part of her fight for social justice, playwright and political activist Lorraine Hansberry supported the emerging American lesbian liberation movement.

literature >> Highsmith, Patricia

Acclaimed mystery writer Patricia Highsmith is the author of one explicitly lesbian novel, as well as the popular series featuring the amoral bisexual Tom Ripley.

literature >> Jewett, Sarah Orne

Sarah Orne Jewett is a major figure in the literature of female romantic friendship, the precursor of modern lesbian literature.

literature >> Larsen, Nella

Constrained by the social conventions of the time, the bisexual African-American novelist Nella Larsen was covert in her treatment of lesbianism.

literature >> Lorde, Audre

The work of African-American activist and writer Audre Lord was greatly influenced by her lesbianism.

social sciences >> National Organization for Women (NOW)

The National Organization for Women (NOW) was founded in 1966 with the goal of bringing about political, social, and legal equality for all women.

literature >> Sarton, May

May Sarton, who gradually revealed her lesbianism in her writing, worked successfully in poetry, the novel, essays, and the journal.

arts >> Smith, Bessie

Gifted with a powerful voice and sophisticated musical artistry, singer Bessie Smith conducted her life by her own set of rules and had affairs with both men and women.

literature >> Stein, Gertrude

In addition to becoming--with Alice B. Toklas--half of an iconic lesbian couple, Gertrude Stein was an important innovator and transformer of the English language.

literature >> Teasdale, Sara

As reflected in her poetry, the strongest emotional relationships in Sara Teasdale's life were with women.

literature >> Vivien, Renée

Renée Vivien, who had many affairs with women, openly celebrated lesboerotic love in her poetry and dreamed of women-controlled spaces in an era when most women were still domestically confined.

literature >> Wittig, Monique

The controversial lesbian author and theorist Monique Wittig has produced some of the most challenging fictional and theoretical work of second-wave feminism.

literature >> Woolf, Virginia

Passionate friendships with women were essential to the life and work of novelist Virginia Woolf.


Benstock, Shari. Women of the Left Bank: Paris, 1900-1940. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986.

Cruikshank, Margaret, ed. Lesbian Studies: Present and Future. Old Westbury, N.Y.: The Feminist Press, 1982.

Faderman, Lillian. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth- Century America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Friedman, Ellen G., and Miriam Fuchs, eds. Breaking the Sequence: Women's Experimental Fiction. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989.

Friedman, Susan Stanford. Penelope's Web: Gender, Modernity, H.D.'s Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Gilbert, Sandra M. and Susan Gubar. "She Meant What I Said." Sexchanges, Vol, 2, No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989. 215-57.

Hull, Gloria T. Color, Sex, & Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Jay, Karla, and Joanne Glasgow, eds. Lesbian Texts and Contexts: Radical Revisions. New York: New York University Press, 1990.

Meese, Elizabeth, (Sem)erotics: theorizing lesbian: writing. New York: New York University Press, 1992.

Stimpson, Catharine R. "Zero Degree Deviancy: The Lesbian Novel in English." Writing and Sexual Difference. Elizabeth Abel, ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. 243-59.

Whitlock, Gillian. " 'Everything is Out of Place': Radclyffe Hall and the Lesbian Literary Tradition." Feminist Studies 13 (1987): 555-582.

Zimmerman, Bonnie. "What Has Never Been: An Overview of Lesbian Feminist Literary Criticism." Feminist Studies 7.3 (1981): 451-475.


    Citation Information
    Author: Smith, Martha Nell  
    Entry Title: American Literature: Lesbian, 1900-1969  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 27, 2009  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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